‘This definitely doesn’t mean that I believe in God’. So I told the Vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Silverton, Devon, when I consented to be baptised. My mother tells me that I was 7 at the time. Now, two thirds a lifetime later, I intend at last to be confirmed. And yes, this definitely does mean that I believe in God (though if my stance had remained the same, I daresay the Vicar of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford would have been quite unperturbed).
What in the intervening time has changed? It was not for any lack of interest that I dismissed God; on the contrary, I have always found Him fascinating. For many years I was determined to justify my youthful dismissal intellectually; I struggled with the basic arguments for and against God, and they were my first engagement in philosophy. I recall with particular fondness my earliest attempts at refuting the ontological argument. My practice, then as now, was to wander the streets of Oxford, synchronising bodily steps with steps of reasoning. The more care I took over my own ideas, however, the more dismayed I became at the careless arguments being offered all around me for the very conclusions I drew so dearly. I saw myself as standing quite apart from Dawkins, whom I had once admired, and all those prepared just to rehearse him. I began to take seriously the more than ordinary stillness that marks out holy places. I held firm to my conclusions, nonetheless, and was able to support them with ever increasing sophistication.
My course turned decisively a little over four years ago. The event displays in retrospect the whole character of a miracle: the Cambridge philosophy tripos rejected me. Determined on Oxbridge, I decided to wait a year and try a new tactic. I settled on the philosophy and theology joint degree at Oxford, and at Oriel College in particular. Remembering last night, which saw the last of three theology subject dinners, I cannot believe that I have made a better decision in my whole life, except perhaps my initial decisions to take up and then to focus on philosophy in Sixth Form.
I suppose I softened myself up in various ways before arriving. I made a study of Eliot’s Four Quartets, and responded with sympathetic awe to their austere intensity. I read Terry Eagleton’s sharp and wise response to the New Atheists, and indeed I even saw Eagleton speak alongside Archbishop Williams, managing to catch the latter for a few words afterwards. When I finally did arrive, two factors were crucial to the shift of my attitudes. The first was the study of theology itself. Here was intellectual work that greatly stimulated and rewarded me. And I felt that this work was important, that there was such a thing as being right and wrong in this discipline, and it mattered which you were. The second factor was Oriel Chapel. Right from the beginning I attended regularly, and was soon established in its small community. The beauty and the mystery of our services, not to mention the warmth of the community itself, attracted me greatly.
Apart from an attack of something like depression during my second year, I have been very happy at Oriel. The people, the place, the work that I do – all have nourished and fulfilled me. And part of what has nourished and fulfilled me here, whether in the theology section of the library or the Newman Oratory, has been Christianity. The rich and satisfying intellectual system worked out by the Church Fathers, the passionate symbols of John’s Gospel, reading the mystery of the eucharist expounded by Cyril of Alexandria one evening and witnessing the same mystery enacted by Robert Tobin the next – all these things have brought me joy. When finally I returned to my old playground in the philosophy of religion, I was no longer interested in criticising theistic arguments and defending atheistic ones. Instead, I was newly sensitive to a different kind of argument, the idea that someone’s warrant for a religious belief is not necessarily a function of the power of the philosophical arguments they can adduce in that belief’s favour. After all, I had at the start of the course tried cobbling together arguments for the belief that I have a hand, and they had not been especially compelling either.
After a marvellous carol service at the end of Michaelmas, I returned to Cambridge with what Brendan Harris would call my soteriological imagination aflame, fully intent on finding a church in Cambridge to claim for my own. So far I have been happy at St. Benet’s. I have only attended two services, but was made very welcome from the first and over the course of the vacation spent several hours there alone in fruitful prayer. Since starting this term, I have also spent much time alone in the Newman Oratory. Intellectual scrutiny can only take one so far. Either you make a serious attempt at personal prayer, and so find the living God, or you can wait to search out where He is hiding before you start to pray, and neither start nor find. Still, until the last week or so there had been a gap between private prayer and public profession. For closing it, I have primarily to thank the earnest evangelicals of Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union and their mission week. Their friendly zeal for my soul brought me focus and courage. I may not be about to accept penal substitution or a pre-Exilic audience for ‘Comfort, O my people…’ any time soon, but today I proudly say that they are my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Anyway, that’s quite enough spiritual autobiography for one night (and for all my high sounding words about personal prayer and the living God, I haven’t prayed yet and would probably fall asleep the moment I tried). I’ll doubtless get around to topics of less import than the origin and end of all things eventually. Till then, may the loving power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bless you and keep you, or just have a secularly nice day, as you please.